Friday 27 September 2019

Bee movie: "Honeyland"

Honeyland is one of those documentaries you can't quite believe exists; its success may be down to people going to check whether it does, and that it is, in fact, an actual thing you pay actual money to sit and marvel at. Even if you did have the mad thought "let's make a movie about a Macedonian beekeeper" and somehow escaped the butterfly net, how on earth would you find a Macedonian beekeeper to make a movie about? Show up in Macedonia for starters, yes, but one doubts Honeyland's subject Hatidze - who lives in a stone shack in the wilds with a menagerie of cats and dogs and a blind, apparently immobile mother - lists herself in the country's equivalent of the Yellow Pages. This may be where a contextualising interview in Filmmaker magazine with directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov becomes not just interesting but essential: were this pair just especially rigorous about investigating the source of what they spread on their toast in the morning, or did they merely follow the buzz? What they've come back with strikes me as a film born of three impulses: to preserve an artisanal tradition liable to die out before we're halfway through this century; to show us something of how the other half still lives (and thereby remind us that, however you and I might be scrabbling for pennies, we had the supreme good fortune to be born into the uppermost half of that world); and, lastly, and this I think has more to do with human curiosity than anything more exploitative, to have a good old gawp.

There is an extraordinary amount to be gawped at, all told, not the least the jawdropping details of Hatidze's routine. Edging along high, rocky cliffs, the forty- or fiftysomething Hatidze extracts stones behind which hide vast, buzzing honeycombs that she removes, wearing little in the way of protective gear, so as to break down and sell in the markets of downtown Skopje; before leaving these impromptu hives, she makes a point of pouring a circle of wild honey out on the ground, her way of ensuring the thirstier bees return to the scene. Yet no sooner has the film established its subject's peaceable existence than a trailer pulls up on an adjacent plot of land, disgorging a farmer, Hussein, his wife, and as many cows and ducklings as there are children (and there are a lot of children). All of a sudden, the film erupts into chaotic life, the gentle hum of the bees drowned out by honking cattle, marital rows, and the sound of this couple's ill-attended offspring throwing one another onto some rocks for shits and giggles. (A parenting style is established when the mother curses her eldest with a furious "May your head come off".) Here is a neighbours-from-hell set-up that sitcom scribes and Channel Five docusoap producers alike would frankly kill for - and Hatidze's hardscrabble existence certainly doesn't get any easier when Hussein announces that he, too, wouldn't mind taking a crack at this beekeeping lark.

One of the reasons Honeyland seems to have crossed over so is that it's an innately funny film: for at least an hour, it resembles some satirical vision of what life might be like in that red tape-less, health-and-safety-free utopia Daily Mail readers keep banging on about. Here is a place where anyone might have a go at anything, no matter their lack of training or aptitude, and where there really is no need for experts. Hatidze crawls on her hands and knees to locate and tap a hive situated halfway up a felled tree that now bridges a river; Hussein turns up with a mate and a chainsaw, and takes the whole thing down for good. Kotevska and Stefanov build a sly, insinuating contrast between their heroine, as patient with her neighbours' pretty ghastly kids as she is with her mother and the bees, and the human blunderbuss Hussein - very much the Homer Simpson of the former Yugoslav republics - who can't even open a hive in his own backyard without everybody in two square miles getting stung to buggery. The film's register shifts, however, when Hussein is contacted by a middleman with an offer to mass produce honey in a way Hatidze, working on her own, never could: soon, he's dragging his sobbing eldest out into thick swarms he cannot control, and which very quickly do for his neighbour's more peaceable bees. Out of nowhere, a bucolic, amber-hued romp suddenly becomes a pointed Marxist text with much to say on the economics of scale and prevailing labour conditions in unregulated markets. (And this market could scarcely be less regulated: Hussein's bees, constantly threatening to recreate the Wicker Man remake, would surely scare off the men with clipboards.)

This is one of the biggest rhetorical leaps a documentary has pulled off in recent years, and Honeyland gets there organically. The conversations between Hussein and his middleman may sound a tad on-the-nose given the points the film is making, but then, given the bluntness Hussein demonstrates elsewhere, who knows? That could just be how he talks business. Everything around him has an unfakeable veracity, born of the film's microscopically close observation of humans and insects alike, and benefits from a remarkably sharp editing strategy. For all the hard graft Kotevska and Stefanov capture, they never labour their points, knowing that the right cut - from, say, a becalmed Hatidze to Hussein allowing a fire to blaze on a hillside - will make those points for them in eminently cinematic ways. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, this small miracle of a film pulls us into these lives, and in doing so, Honeyland reveals a poignancy that is also, you note, an injustice: that, unlike her neighbour/nemesis, who can rock up, tap the land for all the resources he can get from it, and then take off as suddenly as he arrived, Hatidze is tied to this remote patch by that mother who cannot move. I still don't know how these directors found these women: with no electricity and no phone apparent in their living quarters, the only way anyone could have contacted them would have been by asking around, and even then, you'd have to commit to spending weeks, months or perhaps even a year living adjacent to them in their darkened hovel. I do know this, though: our documentarists are now routinely putting in more effort than our fiction-makers - and if Honeyland's box-office returns are anything to go by, they're getting the sweet, sweet rewards they deserve.

Honeyland is now playing in selected cinemas.

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